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Monday, November 11, 2019

Taken by Surprise: Recent Works on Paper and in Oil by Dean Dass

In September 2018, Dean Dass made a pilgrimage through northern Michigan into Ontario, following a route that paralleled the one taken by the Group of Seven. Like Dass, this cohort of Canadian artists was drawn to the particular qualities of the north, its rugged austerity, subtle palette and distinctive light. And like him too, they were influenced by the Nordic artists Edvard Munch, Jonas Heiska and Akseli Gallen-Kallela, artists whom Dass has been studying for 25 years. There is something undeniably elegiac about the landscapes Dass painted after the trip. The works created by the artists who came a century before were essentially tributes to the scenery, but Dass’s images of pristine nature are loaded. We cannot look at them without being reminded of how threatened such places are.     

Dass’s body of work follows two distinct directions. There are the exquisite, lush renderings of rivers and forests in oil. And then there are the ethereal, stylized pieces on paper that appear both ancient and contemporary with their heavily worked surfaces that incorporate such organic materials as graphite, gold leaf and mica together with washes of pigment. Dass considers these two approaches closely aligned and part of a unified continuum. 

You can see this alignment in his recent abstract (but based in reality) paintings, Fireflies and Seven Clouds. Fireflies is a painting of a photo of a television screen paused on a sci-fi film, while Seven Clouds, features luscious earth-tone shapes that derive from video game stills set against an inky backdrop. Both paintings are based on early collages included in the exhibition, Räjähdyksiä Maisemassa (Landscape with Explosions), Galleria Harmonia, Jyväskylä, Finland. “I want these kinds of paintings to do two paradoxical things simultaneously,” says Dass, referring to the pleasurable visceral reaction to an aesthetically appealing composition that’s also tinged with unease upon contemplation. “So that we’re stuck vibrating in the connotative space between two terms.”

Dass is enchanted by the nesting fish which abound in the creek that flows by his house. This little stream runs into the Mechums River, which Dass has painted for over 20 years. The Mechums goes into the James and the James, into the Chesapeake Bay and thence to the ocean. In the passage of water and fish, one could say Dass is “Looking upstream, maybe in the sense of looking further, more closely, into the depths as it were.” In Chub, he uses gold leaf for the little fish, capturing the effect of sunlight hitting their silvery skin. In the almost abstract work, he fractures the mandala—an image of truth that recurs in Dass’s work—transforming it into something entirely different. In this case, “a joyous little swimming creature.” 

Dass uses his practice to explore, not just the media he uses, but to take deep cerebral dives into history, mythology and philosophy. “I am interested in asking what do we see,  what do we know, what do we understand?” he says. Having come to painting at the age of 40, Dass brought with him the methodical, process-rich approach of the printmaker he’d spent the first part of his career being. Dass is constantly exploring new and old media and techniques. His glazes are the same ones used by northern Renaissance artists and yet, he is not averse to using an inkjet printer. He works with intention, but also leaves things up to chance, allowing media to mix, and ebb and flow on their own.

Dass’s landscapes are mysterious and romantic. He captures the elements of water and air with extraordinary sensitivity. Just look at the limpid stretch of olive, steel gray and black in the foreground of Chippewa Falls. The river comes alive in his hands—you can almost hear it, feel it and smell it. Or, the way sunlight filters through leaves or branches creating coronas of yellow, pink, or orange radiance. 

In Bog Near Sault Ste. Marie, Dass has dotted the water’s surface with bold squiggles of yellow pigment to indicate sunlight dancing off water. But, the marks also jar us out of our complacent perception of a scenic image into a more profound appreciation. It’s part of what Dass is after when he says he wants landscape painting to take the viewer by surprise. Or, to extrapolate from German philosopher Theodor Adorno, to engender a “shudder” in the viewer. This involuntary, primal response is similar to the awe and fear central to the 19th century notion of the Sublime. To convey this, contemporaneous painters chose as subjects places of natural magnificence, which helped hammer home the point. Dass prefers more low-key settings. In both works on paper and in oil, Dass finds the awe, the shudder, and he ensures that we find it too.

Catalogue essay commissioned by Dean Dass and Les Yeux du Monde gallery, Charlottesville, Virginia. Supported in part by UVA Arts & the Office of the Provost & the Vice Provost for the Arts. 

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Ne Plus Ultra #2

I’d booked the only reservation left to go up in the glass dome of the Reichstag. It was for 8:00 am. The night before, I set the alarm for 6:30, looked at the subway map to cement the right stop in my mind and went to bed. 

Somehow, I’d got it wrong and the stop I thought was correct was miles away from the Reichstag. There was no way I’d make the reservation. Disappointed, I was even more determined to see the Nefertiti bust. With visions of the Mona Lisa gallery at the Louvre filling my head, I high tailed it over to the Neues Museum to get in line for tickets. There were seven people in front of me at the kiosk set up in the forecourt shared by the Neues Museum and the Pergamon. 

You can buy entrance tickets for each museum and also tickets that get you into all of them. The people in front, purchased the latter and headed over to the Pergamon. I rushed over to the entrance of the Neues where there were two people already waiting. The doors opened, and we were admitted. They headed over to the coat check. I asked the guard where the Nefertiti bust was and hurried up the stairs. On the second floor, I asked directions from another guard. Normally, I would never do that. Normally, I’d want to convey that I wasn’t superficially fixated solely on art history’s “greatest hits”, and would feign interest in the cases leading into the main attraction. But this time, I cut straight to the chase. As the guard waved me in the correct direction, she all but rolled her eyes. 

I sped walked over to the room in which Nefertiti is displayed. It is a chamber fit for a queen with a series of arched niches forming the walls. The walls are green and look frescoed. The floor is elaborately inlaid polychrome and there’s a domed coffered ceiling. (The entire Neues Museum is beautifully appointed with painted walls, inlaid floors, elaborate ceilings, creating a semblance of a palace from antiquity.) 

For a scant few moments I had Nefertiti all to myself before two guards came hurrying in. Almost immediately I began to weep. Beyond the absolute beauty of the thing, the fact that it is so lifelike and life-size is simply gob smacking. There is something comforting about her eternal beauty and serenity that has endured through millennia. There’s also an intimacy to this one-on-one encounter between Nefertiti and me. She lived over 3,300 years ago and was an Egyptian Queen—I am a 21st century American woman. What could be more different? And yet, all I could think was she was a person and female so experienced many of the things I have. 

Present also in the experience of standing there with Nefertiti is the weight of all the history that has transpired between her lifetime and mine. It’s impossible not to feel the enormity of the difference and yet the commonality of being human. My time with Nefertiti was brief—I felt awkward lingering too long with the guards there—but it was one of the most profound experiences I have ever had.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Valeska Gert

I had never heard of Valeska Gert, but there was something about her pixyish face, with its rubbery, slightly bruised features that called to mind other clowns with melancholy overtones: Judy Garland as photographed in clown make-up by Richard Avedon, or Pagliaccio. A Sally Bowles meets Carolee Schneemann hybrid, Gert was a prominent figure in the cabaret life of 1920s Berlin and would go on to make a name for herself as an envelope-pushing performance artist who would be a muse for both the Dadaists and the Punks.

Gert was fearless, taking a provocative and anarchic approach to performing, using her body to confront societal conventions. Informed by Berlin’s cabaret scene and the nascent film industry, Gert developed a performance practice that combined theatre, dance, cinema, poetry and song. She loved burlesque and the grotesque, the marginal and the unexpected, incorporating all this into her performances. 

Born Gertrud Valesca Samosch to a well to do Jewish family, Gert began taking dance lessons when she was nine. Acting classes would follow. World War I adversely affected her family's fortunes, forcing her to earn her own way. She joined a dance group and created revolutionary dances that were performed at various theaters around Berlin. 

In the 1920s, she used dance to express such unconventional subjects as a traffic accident or an orgasm. Pause was performed at a movie theater during the interval when film reels were changed. Gert came onstage and literally just stood there doing nothing in an effort to showcase inactivity and silence amidst the chaos of modern life. It was revolutionary.

At the same time, Gert was also performing at Berlin's famous cabaret, Schall und Rauch (Sound and Smoke). She toured with her dances: Dance in Orange, Boxing, Circus, Japanese Grotesque, Death and Whore.

Gert appeared in several early films including G. W. Pabst’s Joyless Street (1925), Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) and The Threepenny Opera (1931). 

In 1933, Gert was banned from the German stage because she was Jewish. She left Germany and lived in London for a time where she worked both in theatre and film, including a role in the experimental short film, Pett and Pott.  

Gert emigrated to the States in 1938, settling in New York. She supported herself by washing dishes and nude modeling. Cabaret remained a focus and in 1941, she opened Beggar Bar. Living Theater founders Julian Beck and Judith Malina worked for her, as did Jackson Pollack and Tennessee Williams.  

Gert returned to Europe in 1947, spending time in Paris and Zurich. She returned to Berlin, opening the cabaret Hexenküche (Witch's Kitchen) in 1948. She moved to Sylt, an island in the Frisian Archipelago where she opened Ziegenstall (Goat Shed). 

In 1965, Gert had a role in Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits. She also appeared in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s TV series Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day and Volker Schlöndorff’s Coup de Grace. In 1978 German film director Werner Herzog asked her to play the real estate broker Knock in his remake of Nosferatu. She died two weeks before filming began.

In 2010, Valeska Gert’s importance was finally acknowledged with Pause: the Art of Valeska Gert presented by the Berlin Museum for Contemporary Art, Hamburger Bahnhof.  

Lotte Laserstein

Lotte Laserstein would never be considered an avant-garde darling, but as the show of her work at the Berlinische Galerie reveals, Laserstein was a great painter. Her work is very much rooted in 19th century naturalism, but she took a modern approach when it came to her formal choices—composition and color, and even to her selection of subject matter, wielding her brush with enormous confidence and emotional sensitivity.  

Laserstein enjoyed a good deal of success during the Weimar Era in Germany, but because she was Jewish, she all but disappeared from the German art scene after 1933. In 1937, she fled to Sweden. 

Laserstein’s particular interest was portraits. These are not formal commissions, but rather character studies of people who interested her. She clearly enjoyed capturing their visages and dress and also, conveying the psychology of the sitter. They provide a wonderful window into the storied world of 1920s and early '30s Berlin. Take for instance, Portrait of Polly Tieck, which depicts a pleasant looking woman wearing a chic hat with a perforated brim that allows the sunlight to dapple her face. In edgy Weimar fashion, she sports a monocle on one eye. Or, the seductive lovelies portrayed in Woman with Red Beret and Girl Lying on Blue. Traute Rose in Green Pullover and Spanish Woman are looser, more indistinct renderings, but with dramatic compositions. The hands in the latter painting are just gorgeous.

Laserstein painted a series of Russians, emigres who had settled in Berlin following the Russian Revolution. Their existence hints at the international flavor of that city in the 1920s. She favored women as subjects and was drawn to the “new woman” whose androgynous look was reflective of their growing independence and presence in the workplace. 

Laserstein painted many portraits of herself. Some show her at work with a model and sometimes an easel. They are mostly unflinching studies. She stares intently out, her face serious, almost confrontational. Laserstein has a plain, Northern European face—a face that could have been painted by Rembrandt or Reubens. It's fleshy with thick lips, slightly bulbous nose and hooded eyes. She renders it with great technical flair and with a complete lack of vanity. Self Portrait with Headscarf (pictured) from 1923 is deceptively simple. A nearly monochromatic study of paint and line working together in a special alchemy to form flesh and soul, the painting is on a scrap of un stretched canvas, framed under glass. Whether intentional or not, this treatment underscores the unvarnished, casualness of the image. Like the headscarf, or the woman depicted, it adds false simplicity to the work which serves to convey the exact opposite. 

Laserstein remained in Sweden until her death. She survived the Nazis and the war, but she was isolated from the international art scene and her oeuvre suffered. She supported herself with portrait commissions, which paid the bills, but left her unfulfilled. And with good reason, they have none of the pizzazz of her earlier work. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Hilma af Klint

I know. I am in the minority, but I was really underwhelmed by Hilma af Kilnt's work.

First of all, I find all that mumbo-jumbo medium stuff off-putting. It seems cultist and whacky. Since I wasn’t on board for that, it was hard to get excited about work, the focus and raison d’être of which, is the mumbo-jumbo medium stuff.

All I could think of when looking at af Klint’s work were doodles in a high school kid's notebook. They obviously meant something, but were unintelligible, aesthetically unremarkable and completely lacking in any sort of soul. More like diagrams than art. Unless you’re a follower of her beliefs, there didn’t seem to be a lot of there there.  

It’s hard not to like the large Paintings from the Temple (pictured Youth), they are beautiful things. But appealing as they are, they’re pretty bland and really quite decorative. In fact, to me, they are precursors to the great Swedish (primarily textile) designer, Josef Frank’s designs. I love his work, but I wouldn't put him in the same class as Kandinsky, or in a show at the Guggenheim. 

While I was going through the exhibition, I took a detour into the gallery with selections from the Guggenheim's permanent collection. Among the works on view was an abstract Kandinsky. I stood in front of it for a while, so struck by how much energy and richness it had as compared to the anemic af Klints hanging just outside. It completely dispels the suggestion that af Klint beat him to abstraction—a silly construct anyway. I also would argue that af Klint’s work isn’t really abstract because the symbols and equations in the work are not purely formal embellishments, they have actual meaning. Picasso and Braque famously inserted words in their later Cubist works. The words were nonsensical, or more accurately, words that make sense, but didn’t have any meaning as relates to the subject of the painting. They were used solely as visual tools to stop the eye from going into space, keeping everything on the flat surface of the picture plane. This focus on the painting as object and not a window into an illusory 3-D world was a concept central to abstraction.  

Don't get me wrong, I applaud efforts to bring stellar female artists (and others previously overlooked) out of the shadows, but let it be someone really extraordinary like Katarzyna Kobro. The problem with her is there's not enough extant work for a big ass museum show and its attendant merch—and that I think hits at the crux of the matter—marketing. (Speaking of which, I almost went for the very Swedish set of two plastic little trays emblazoned with two of the Paintings from the Temple—a perfect place for them. I didn’t end up getting them as I was a little troubled by the scale.) 

I would classify af Klint as an outsider artist akin to Henry Darger. They each created an immense body of work within a self-imposed vacuum. I find Darger’s work far more compelling. It has a passion that is completely absent from af Klint’s. Looking at it, you feel that passion and when coupled with the circumstances of his life, the work becomes a bigger, exceedingly moving story of perseverance and triumph. It's certainly noteworthy that af Klint created an only recently discovered, enormous body of work and belief system, but it’s primarily a human interest story. I object to the slavish adulation surrounding the show, that has given af Klint a stature she really doesn't deserve.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Siri Aurdal

The largest and first solo exhibition of Norwegian sculptor Siri Aurdal since 1980, Continuum at the Malmö Konsthall presents Aurdal’s breathtaking work in a long overdue tribute to this visionary artist.

After a decades-long hiatus, Aurdal reemerged to great fanfare during the 57th Venice Biennale when her Onda Volante ("Flying Wave") was exhibited at the 2017 Nordic Pavilion. This monumental work of graceful, looping forms is made from reinforced, fiberglass-coated, polyester tubes intended for use in the Norwegian oil industry. With the tubes, Aurdal is able to explore her interest in modular sculptural systems. 

Aurdal is known for her interest in industrial materials, drawn to them because of the engineering possibilities they afford—strength, flexibility and lightness. But she also clearly revels in and is aware of the power of taking something humble and unpretentious and imbuing it with beauty and grace.

The two other pieces, Interview (1968/2018) and Conversation (2018) are hung together suggesting a fluidity inherent in the show’s title. The sheets of colored Plexiglas that comprise them are cut into different shapes that are suspended from the ceiling. One can walk amongst them in a kind of kaleidoscopic maze of color. As you move through, colors (red, green, and pink for the former; deep blue, light blue, and orange for the latter) and figures overlap creating new forms and hues. 

It was very interesting seeing this show hot on the heels of the exhibition on Katarzyna Kobro at the Moderna Museet, Malmö. I thought at first it must be intentional, but I never saw anything linking the two women.The connection between the two seems pretty clear. According to the accompanying literature, Aurdal, like Kobro was interested in the relationship of art to architecture as well as its social context. But more striking was something I could see with my own eyes: how their sculptures occupy and interact with space. They don’t sit within it like separate masses, but actively engage with it. Above and beyond this, the two women share an artistic courage and unwavering determination to create art on their own terms in a field of men. 

Aurdal took her sculpture to a much larger scale—she was part of a generation that did this—but, as a woman, it took a certain uncompromising bravery to be so bold. Because let’s face it, especially in the 1960s (the date of the original iterations of this work), monumentality was considered the province of men. Aurdal deftly co-ops it, while managing to hold onto her female identity. You look at these pieces and know they could only have been done by a woman.

One hopes from the title of the exhibition, Continuum, that what we see here—the brilliance of the past and present work—will carry on into the future and more will be forthcoming from Aurdal.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

More Than a Tea Cup

Meret Oppenheim is a name familiar to anyone who has taken an Art History survey course. Her brilliant, edgy and whimsical fur-lined tea cup, Object, is perennially trotted out as the emblematic symbol of the Dadaist movement. But as Mirrors of the Mind, a comprehensive retrospective of Oppenheim’s oeuvre makes clear, Oppenheim was far more than a one-shot wonder with a long and interesting career. 

The show at EMMA (the Espoo Museum of Modern Art) includes 200 works by Oppenheim and other surrealists like Man Ray and Daniel Spoerri, as well as photographs of Oppenheim herself. Oppenheim died in 1985, but she remains a leader in the field of Surrealism and an icon of feminism. 

In her 50-year career, Oppenheim created paintings, sculptures, drawings and graphics. She also designed and made jewelry, as well as furniture and garments, and if all that wasn’t enough, she also wrote poetry.

The exhibition is beautifully curated and displayed in a series of small galleries that suit the work’s aesthetic, scale and era. Particularly effective, is the room featuring glass vitrines placed within plywood walls that are both warm and perfectly attuned to the work on view—it would behoove the people at the soulless shopping mall-like institutions masquerading as museums to take a look at this presentation and see the power of intimate spaces.

I was charmed by Oppenheim's paintings and works on paper. The Earl Queen is a mysterious, somewhat haunting painting of a strange headed figure holding an infant with the same sort of head but with elongated crossing horns. The heads are kind of sinister, almost satanic. The two figures are next to a bushy tree that seems illuminated. In the background one can see the lighted windows of a train. The dreamlike scene is nocturnal and rendered in grays and blacks. The exceptions are the min figures' red and blue clothes. These are nearly diaphanous and suggest an apparition. Moth is a nearly abstract work of beautifully modulated grays, white and black. These two works reveal a subtlety and range surprising if all you have to go on as far as Oppenheim's work is Object. Her etching, Schoolgirl's Notebook is a replica of her math notebook in which she drew "x = hare", a nonsensical equation meant to illustrate her aversion to both math and school is simple, witty and striking. 

Giacometti's Ear, a true-to-life size bronze rendering of an ear is a marvelous object. You don't really notice at first, but Oppenheim has used something that looks like a tree trunk, or perhaps the silhouette of a woman's body, two lilies and a fist to form the anatomy of the ear. Traccia her famous bronze table with its funny bird legs is here, a delightful union of elegance and farce. I didn't see My Nurse at EMMA, but later in Stockholm during the same trip, a confection composed of a pair of white pumps neatly trussed and served up on a platter. The piece de resistance are the manchettes stuck jauntily onto the heels like the shoes are a proper crown roast. One is drawn to the materials, the humor and also the enigmatic quality. The photographs, taken over many years, are testament to Oppenheim's fearlessness and commitment to art. 

Man Ray's elegant swirl of a lampshade and Spoerri's Transvestite in a Blue Picture with a Glove Holder (from 2001) were two works by Oppenheim's circle that stood out.